Back to school: Meet the teachers who go the extra mile for their students
With schools re-opening, we share the stories of three UAE-based teachers who go the extra mile to equip their students for life.
Teaching is one of the most underrated jobs out there - but also one the most crucial. Teachers are the cornerstones who develop the minds of future doctors, engineers, lawyers and journalists - not to mention, mothers and fathers. With Back to School season upon us, we thought it the perfect time to celebrate the ones who overcome extra challenges or go beyond the call of duty to mould students into becoming the leaders of tomorrow.
Sherief Sayed Abu-Senna
Some look at what they don't have and blame their circumstances for being unable to attain their dreams. But not Sherief Sayed Abu-Senna. Born without part of his right arm and leg, he chose to take what many would perceive a weakness and make it his strength. He was determined to inspire - and what better way than to teach? Although Sherief initially began his career in the tourism sector, he soon switched tracks to become a teacher, as he was keen to show youngsters that everyone has the potential to become successful, no matter who they are.
Growing up, he did get bullied, but the 46-year-old says his family always made him feel normal. "They always told me that everyone has a 'disability' or something he or she cannot do. So, when I was younger, I never let it come in the way of regular physical activities and, today, I'm a professional swimmer and diver. When you find the area you're good in, work to master it."
As a teacher, he faces extra challenges every day, as standing for long periods with a prosthetic leg causes considerable discomfort. Since prosthetics weren't easily accessible when he was younger, Sherief says his dad taught him to write with his left hand, even though he has just one finger on it. Writing on a whiteboard while teaching can, therefore, be a real challenge - but it cannot compare with the satisfaction of seeing his students grow. "The successful person is not the one who has no problems, but the one who can challenge these difficulties and work towards becoming successful," he shares.
"God blessed me with family, teachers and friends who supported me. Repaying their kindness doesn't just involve praying for them, but doing the same for others, like a cycle," says the English Language teacher, who teaches at American International School. Whenever he has low days, his students are the ones who make him forget all his struggles. "One of my students once told me that besides all he learnt from me, when he wanted to give up, I gave him reason not to. Words like those really make my day," he says. "After 11 years of teaching, I have found a part of myself in all my students," he says.
One of the people who inspired his journey was his own English teacher - a Mrs Malik - who looked well past his physical challenges and believed in him. "Mrs Malik taught me life lessons and changed my perspective about life and my challenges. I do the same today, looking deep within my students, and helping them through their challenges."
When Sherief's father passed away this year, his death reminded him of his responsibilities towards his students, who he considers his own children. "Although I was very sad at his passing, it gave me another insight: it's the circle of life. I feel him around me now more than ever and I think of his teachings," says the Egyptian expat of his dad, who he calls his first teacher.
Sharing a first-day-back ritual in his class, Sherief tells of how he asks his students to stand up, close their eyes and imagine themselves in their gowns on graduation day in college, so that when they want to give up, they'll remember the image they painted into their own minds. "I feel like God sent me into this world for this very purpose, to guide people and show them that what may logically be considered a weakness can ultimately become your strength."
When Stephen King, a British lecturer in Middlesex University, got nominated this year for the Dedicated Teacher's Award, organised by the Cambridge University Press, it came as no surprise to his students who readily tell of what an "all-rounder" they consider him to be. And the stories are many: he goes out of the way both inside and outside the classroom, actively shares job opportunities with his students, and is also very approachable if students need to talk about personal problems or struggles.
Stephen is well-known among students for creating WhatsApp groups for the media batch every year, where he posts work and internship opportunities. This has been a particularly successful undertaking, as students who got jobs would then receive offers on their own and forward them to the group. "It's turned out to be a really good initiative, because it's not just me sending out jobs, but students themselves who are recruiting each other, which is fantastic," says the media lecturer.
But that's not all. Stephen has also created a database with about 200 students from the university, who he knows to be working either part-time or full-time. And he makes the time to personally check in on each of them - even offering to act as a bridge between the organisation and student in case of any issues. Over the summer, he started an IGTV channel on his Instagram page, where he shares interviews he conducts with these students about their experiences. This has allowed many of his pupils to gain confidence and share their learnings with others. "It makes me nothing but proud to have such students who've worked their way up and are inspiring others," he says.
Interestingly, Stephen doesn't believe he's doing more than what's required. "I don't consider it as going beyond, as I believe it's what students need," he explains. "Teaching has an exhaustive list of requirements expected of teachers - both formally through job descriptions, but also informally through social expectations based on what you see in the media. I just do my best and I'm sure everyone else does the same," he says.
Over the summer, lecturers are busy planning for the year ahead, making sure the courses are up to date and, of course, fun. "In an industry as competitive as we are in, it's absolutely necessary to give more than what is required in order to be the best we can be," he says. "Showing everyone by being present and demonstrating by example, I hope to inspire others that there's a reward for working hard. This may not come immediately, but it will over time, as your reputation builds. That's what I try to do and hope the students will take away as they go on."
Sonia Mario Creado
Teaching comes with its own set of challenges - but it takes considerable dedication and hard work to teach at a special needs school. For Sonia Mario Creado, her interest in becoming a special needs educator goes back to her secondary school years. "I used to join voluntary groups visiting centres for children of determination and, through that, realised it was the field I wanted to pursue," states the 38-year-old Indian.
The Dubai-based special educator chose this career because she realised how difficult it was for parents to go through that stage of acceptance and struggle - and how much they needed someone to understand their children and be part of their journey.
Now, working in Al Noor Training Center for Children with Special Needs, Sonia works with students aged three to nine with a variety of challenges, including cerebral palsy, autism and Down syndrome. Speaking of what the role entails, she tells of how she needs to know everything about her students before she teaches them. From studying their student files to knowing their medical history, that knowledge - even something as simple as knowing which colour can trigger them - becomes critical for optimal interaction. "We have a reinforcement technique that helps us understand what the child loves best. Whether bubbles or smileys, we'll use that to get their attention. Understanding what the strongest reinforcer is helps us work with them and make the class as creative as possible."
Even though it's no easy feat, it's what Sonia loves to do. "It's a completely fulfilling day for me because I'm not just their teacher, but I'm that chance for them to see a whole new world from within the four walls of our classroom."
She emphasised that any teacher, whether of students with or without special needs, should go the extra-mile for students. "We are fortunate that many parents share their gifts and it's important for a teacher to know her child in order to give them the training necessary to mould them into more independent individuals." And everyone has hidden talents, Sonia believes. "We need to find out what particular skill they are good at, so we can train them to follow what they want to be."
It truly is a "rewarding job" for Sonia, and more than just giving to the students, there's a lot teachers get back. "It's always exciting to join back, because you have a new classroom with different kinds of students. Learning small new things about them along the way and catering to their needs gives me a lot of happiness. Ultimately, when my student becomes independent, I feel like my job is done. It gives me happiness and satisfaction to see them grow."